Monday, September 06, 2010

Workplace discrimination

More news about gender based workplace discrimination. I have female friends who are scientists and report that being a mother is not compatible with being a scientist. I know an female engineer who doesn't have children because she believes she couldn't continue her career if she did.

A work in progress. Still.

Birth of a baby too often kills parental career

Rachel Hills
September 7, 2010

Expecting total sacrifice to the workplace ignores changes in gender roles.

REGARDLESS of whether Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott is declared prime minister at the conclusion of the most protracted federal election result in history, one thing is for certain: come January, Australia will finally have a paid parental leave scheme.

It's a victory that is 40 years in the making, and one that will make a real difference to many young families. But the more important changes for equality, both in the workplace and at home, are still to come.

Last week, the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia released its Women in the Professions report, which surveyed 1100 Australian women in the sciences, engineering and management. The results are sobering. Nearly 40 per cent of respondents had been bullied, 38 per cent had been discriminated against based on their gender, and 20 per cent reported that they had been sexually harassed - suggesting that the recent David Jones furore is just one drop in a much larger pond.

What is most striking about the findings, however, is the extent to which many women are still struggling to combine family and working life. Australia's birth rate may be on the rise again, but the women surveyed were acutely aware of the negative impact having children was likely to have on their career prospects. One woman tells how a male colleague, upon discovering she was pregnant, sent her an email, saying: ''I am so sorry to hear of your pregnancy. You had so much potential, you would have been a great scientist.''

''I took it as a personal affront when I received it,'' she said. ''Now, I believe he was commenting on the way he knew the academic science industry worked, and the effect it has on most mothers.''

She is not alone. Nearly 70 per cent of respondents said that taking parental leave - paid or otherwise - was likely to be detrimental to their career, despite legally having access to the leave. A similar proportion of those who were already parents said that having children had affected their career progress.

While at first glance these issues might appear to affect women more than men, they are not simply a matter of unbridled gender discrimination. Rather, they are indicative of old-fashioned structures which assume that the ideal worker is one who is willing and able to sacrifice everything on the altar of their career.

Such assumptions may have worked fine in the old days of gender-divided labour, in which men went out to work and women looked after the home, but for some time we have lived in a world in which both sexes expect to spend most of their adult years working.

Increasingly, men and women want to share the responsibility for looking after the household and caring for children more equitably. Just as women don't want to be chained to the home, men don't want to be chained to their desks. Both genders are seeking a balance that allows them to make a contribution to public life, without sacrificing their private life or mental health.

Add to that the reluctance of many in their 20s and 30s to give up their freedom and independence in exchange for a fatter pay cheque, and you've got a significant disjunct between employee and employer attitudes.

But while some companies have responded to these shifts, offering more flexible working hours and conditions, many continue to lag. And if taking leave or going part-time is thought to signify a lack of commitment to work when women do it, it is received even more poorly when men do.

One woman quoted in the report tells how she and her husband initially tried to share their child-rearing responsibilities, but quickly found that it was far easier for her to negotiate flexible work arrangements than it was for her partner. ''There was an expectation from my husband's employer that I would be the one to assume those duties and I had to compromise my return to full-time work to avoid stress to my husband's employment,'' she said.

The truth is that some achievements - becoming prime minister or a High Court judge, finding cures for diseases or writing the great Australian novel - do require extraordinary levels of commitment and significant personal sacrifice. But if we're honest with ourselves, most workers - and most jobs, even professional ones - aren't operating at that level.

Most of us just want to do our work well (preferably in a field we like and are good at), be recognised for our efforts, and take home enough money to enjoy the non-work things we care about. There's little reason these aims can't be achieved as easily in a 30-hour work week as they can in a 60-hour one.

Nor is it the case that long hours always equal better ideas and bigger innovations. We're not just robbing women and men who choose to have families of their individual opportunities for career advancement, we're also robbing ourselves of some of our best and brightest minds. Just ask the 24 per cent of women scientists who expect to have left their profession within five years.

Rachel Hills edits ''Musings of an Inappropriate Woman'', a blog on the politics of everyday life.

Source: The Age

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